Isn't everything on the internet free?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a new publication from Elsevier. The book seems to contain quite a bit of unlicensed copyrighted material, collected without proper permission from public and private groups on LinkedIn, SPE papers, and various websites. I had hoped to have an update for you today, but the company is still "looking into" the matter.

The comments on that post, and on Twitter, raised some interesting views. Like most views, these views usually come in pairs. There is a segment of the community that feels quite enraged by the use of (fully attributed) LinkedIn comments in a book; but many people hold the opposing view, that everything on the Internet is fair game.

I sympathise with this permissive view, to an extent. If you put stuff on the web, people are (one hopes) going to see it, interpret it, and perhaps want to re-use it. If they do re-use it, they may do so in ways you did not expect, or perhaps even disagree with. This is okay — this is how ideas develop. 

I mean, if I can't use a properly attributed LinkedIn post as the basis for a discussion, or a YouTube video to illustrate a point, then what's really the point of those platforms? It would undermine the idea of the web as a place for interaction and collaboration, for cultural or scientific evolution. 

Freely accessible but not free

Not to labour the point, but I think we all understand that what we put on the Internet is 'out there'. Indeed, some security researchers suggest you should assume that every email you type will be in the local newspaper tomorrow morning. This isn't just 'a feeling', it's built into how the web works. most websites are exclusively composed of strictly copyrighted content, but most websites also have conspicuous buttons to share that copyrighted content — Tweet this, Pin that, or whatever. The signals are confusing... do you want me to share this or not? 

One can definitely get carried away with the idea that everything should be free. There's a spectrum of infractions. On the 'everyday abuse' end of things, we have the point of view that grabbing randoms images from the web and putting the URL at the bottom is 'good enough'. Based on papers at conferences, I suspect that most people think this and, as I explained before, it's definitely not true: you usually need permission. 

At the other end of the scale, you end up with Sci-Hub (which sounds like it's under pressure to close at the moment) and various book-sharing sites, both of which I think are retrograde and anti-open-access (as well as illegal). I believe we should respect the copyright of others — even that of supposedly evil academic publishers — if we want others to respect ours.

So what's the problem with a bookful of LinkedIn posts and other dubious content? Leaving aside for now the possibility of more serious plagiarism, I think the main problem is simply that the author went too far — it is a wholesale rip-off of 350 people's work, not especially well done, with no added value, and sold for a hefty sum.

Best practice for re-using stuff on the web

So how do we know what is too far? Is it just a value judgment? How do you re-use stuff on the web properly? My advice:

  • Stop it. Resist the temptation to Google around, grabbing whatever catches your eye.
  • Re-use sparingly, only using one or two of the real gems. Do you really need that picture of a casino on your slide entitled "Risk and reward"? (No, you definitely don't.)
  • Make your own. Ideas are not copyrightable, so it might be easier to copy the idea and make the thing you want yourself (giving credit where it's due, of course).
  • Ask for permission from the creator if you do use someone's stuff. Like I said before, this is only fair and right.
  • Go open! Preferentially share things by people who seem to be into sharing their stuff.
  • Respect the work. Make other people's stuff look awesome. You might even...
  • ...improve the work if you can — redraw a diagram, fix a typo — then share it back to them and the community.
  • Add value. Add real insight, combine things in new ways, surprise and delight the original creators.
  • And finally, if you're not doing any of these things, you better not be trying to profit from it. 

Everything on the Internet is not free. My bet is that you'll be glad of this fact when you start putting your own stuff out there. We can all do our homework and model good practice. This is especially important for those people in influential positions in academia, because their behaviours rub off on so many impressionable people. 


We talked to Fernando Enrique Ziegler on the Undersampled Radio podcast last week. He was embroiled in the 'bad book' furore too, in fact he brought it to many people's attention. So this topic came up in the show, as well as a lot of stuff about pore pressure and hurricanes. Check it out...

Attribution is not permission

Onajite_cover.png

This morning a friend of mine, Fernando Enrique Ziegler, a pore pressure researcher and practitioner in Houston, let me know about an "interesting" new book from Elsevier: Practical Solutions to Integrated Oil and Gas Reservoir Analysis, by Enwenode Onajite, a geophysicist in Nigeria... And about 350 other people.

What's interesting about the book is that the majority of the content was not written by Onajite, but was copy-and-pasted from discussions on LinkedIn. A novel way to produce a book, certainly, but is it... legal?

Who owns the content?

Before you read on, you might want to take a quick look at the way the book presents the LinkedIn material. Check it out, then come back here. By the way, if LinkedIn wasn't so damn difficult to search, or if the book included a link or some kind of proper citation of the discussion, I'd show you a conversation in LinkedIn too. But everything is completely untraceable, so I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader.

LinkedIn's User Agreement is crystal clear about the ownership of content its users post there:

[...] you own the content and information that you submit or post to the Services and you are only granting LinkedIn and our affiliates the following non-exclusive license: A worldwide, transferable and sublicensable right to use, copy, modify, distribute, publish, and process, information and content that you provide through our Services [...]

This is a good user agreement [Edit: see UPDATE, below]. It means everything you write on LinkedIn is © You — unless you choose to license it to others, e.g. under the terms of Creative Commons (please do!).

Fernando — whose material was used in the book — tells me that none of the several other authors he has asked gave, or were even asked for, permission to re-use their work. So I think we can say that this book represents a comprehensive infringement of copyright of the respective authors of the discussions on LinkedIn.

Roles and reponsibilities

Given the scale of this infringement, I think there's a clear lack of due diligence here on the part of the publisher and the editors. Having said that, while publishers are quick to establish their copyright on the material they publish, I would say that this lack of diligence is fairly normal. Publishers tend to leave this sort of thing to the author, hence the standard "Every effort has been made..." disclaimer you often find in non-fiction books... though not, apparently, in this book (perhaps because zero effort has been made!).

But this defence doesn't wash: Elsevier is the copyright holder here (Onajite signed it over to them, as most authors do), so I think the buck stops with them. Indeed, you can be sure that the company will make most of the money from the sale of this book — the author will be lucky to get 5% of gross sales, so the buck is both figurative and literal.

Incidentally, in Agile's publishing house, Agile Libre, authors retain copyright, but we take on the responsibility (and cost!) of seeking permissions for re-use. We do this because I consider it to be our reputation at stake, as much as the author's.

OK, so we should blame Elsevier for this book. Could Elsevier argue that it's really no different from quoting from a published research paper, say? Few researchers ask publishers or authors if they can do this — especially in the classroom, "for educational purposes", as if it is somehow exempt from copyright rules (it isn't). It's just part of the culture — an extension of the uneducated (uninterested?) attitude towards copyright that prevails in academia and industry. Until someone infringes your copyright, at least.

Seek permission not forgiveness

I notice that in the Acknowledgments section of the book, Onajite does what many people do — he gives acknowledgement ("for their contributions", he doesn't say they were unwitting) to some the authors of the content. Asking for forgiveness, as it were (but not really). He lists the rest at the back. It's normal to see this sort of casual hat tip in presentations at conferences — someone shows an unlicensed image they got from Google Images, slaps "Courtesy of A Scientist" or a URL at the bottom, and calls it a day. It isn't good enough: attribution is not permission. The word "courtesy" implies that you had some.

Indeed, most of the figures in Onajite's book seem to have been procured from elsewhere, with "Courtesy ExxonMobil" or whatever passing as a pseudolicense. If I was a gambler, I would bet that the large majority were used without permission.

OK, you're thinking, where's this going? Is it just a rant? Here's the bottom line:

The only courteous, professional and, yes, legal way to re-use copyrighted material — which is "anything someone created", more or less — is to seek written permission. It's that simple.

A bit of a hassle? Indeed it is. Time-consuming? Yep. The good news is that you'll usually get a "Sure! Thanks for asking". I can count on one hand the number of times I've been refused.

The only exceptions to the rule are when:

  • The copyrighted material already carries a license for re-use (as Agile does — read the footer on this page).
  • The copyright owner explicitly allows re-use in their terms and conditions (for example, allowing the re-publication of single figures, as some journals do).
  • The law allows for some kind of fair use, e.g. for the purposes of criticism.

In these cases, you do not need to ask, just be sure to attribute everything diligently.

A new low in scientific publishing?

What now? I believe Elsevier should retract this potentially useful book and begin the long process of asking the 350 authors for permission to re-use the content. But I'm not holding my breath.

By a very rough count of the preview of this $130 volume in Google Books, it looks like the ratio of LinkedIn chat to original text is about 2:1. Whatever the copyright situation, the book is definitely an uninspiring turn for scientific publishing. I hope we don't see more like it, but let's face it: if a massive publishing conglomerate can make $87 from comments on LinkedIn, it's gonna happen.

What do you think about all this? Does it matter? Should Elsevier do something about it? Let us know in the comments.


UPDATE Friday 1 September

Since this is a rather delicate issue, and events are still unfolding, I thought I'd post some updates from Twitter and the comments on this post:

  • Elsevier is aware of these questions and is looking into it.
  • Re-read the user agreement quote carefully. As Ronald points out below, I was too hasty — it's really not a good user agreement, LinkedIn have a lot of scope to re-use what you post there. 
  • It turns out that some people were asked for permission, though it seems it was unclear what they were agreeing to. So the author knew that seeking permission was a good idea.
  • It also turns out that at least one SPE paper was reproduced in the book, in a rather inconspicuous way. I don't know if SPE granted rights for this, but the author at least was not identified.
  • Some people are throwing the word 'plagiarism' around, which is rather a serious word. I'm personally willing to ascribe it to 'normal industry practices' and sloppy editing and reviewing (the book was apparently reviewed by no fewer than 5 people!). And, at least in the case of the LinkedIn content, proper attribution was made. For me, this is more about honesty, quality, and value in scientific publishing than about misconduct per se.
  • It's worth reading the comments on this post. People are raising good points.

Part of the thumbnail image was created by Jannoon028 — Freepik.com — and licensed CC-BY.